And so my second semester in China ends as suddenly and chaotically as it began. This morning, I noticed a 48th student sitting all by her lonesome in the back row of the auditorium. After a series of idiotic squints, I managed to make out the blunt features of my blunt-spoken supervisor. I broke into a sweat. My knees buckled and trembled. I assumed, as I always do when confronted by an authority figure, that I was in deep shit. I mentally packed my bags, visualized the concourse of the Chengdu International Airport, and ran through my resignation speech as I switched on the projector screen and cued up The Joy Luck Club. Then, I sat in the very front row for about fifteen seconds before my supervisor snuck up from behind and swatted me on the shoulder.
"Come to the rear, please?"
"Oh, right, sure, no problem, okay!" I stammered.
"I have three things to tell," she said.
I could see where this was going already. Number one: a vague compliment. Number two: a schedule change, an upcoming Chinese holiday, a 93-year-old handyman coming to my apartment at such-and-such o'clock. It was number three that I was afraid of. Actually, I couldn't see where this was going at all.
"Number one," she said. "The final exam is start next week."
I painted over my astonishment with a dopey grin and a string of rapid-fire nods.
"Oh, that's cool. Like, next Monday?"
"That is number two," she said. "Next Wednesday you know is Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. Monday and Tuesday there is no class. No class Monday and Tuesday. We will have class Saturday and Sunday in lieu."
In lieu? In the loo? I nodded, nodded, nodded.
"So we have a vacation? But not really?"
"Yes," she said, "vacation, but not really. So the final exam is begin on Saturday."
"The day after tomorrow. Excellent," I said, "and what's behind door number three?"
"Oh. Number three is, do you like singing a song?"
"Sometimes," I said, listing in my mind the conditions under which I have been known to sing publicly.
"I will go to KTV tomorrow loon," she said.
"Tomorrow loon I will go to KTV."
"KTV tomorrow loon."
The Sichuanese possess two of the world's more puzzling speech impediments. Surprisingly, the L/R dichotomy is a non-issue in Sichuan. My students can pronounce the word "ruler" without spraining their tongues, and the kids on the street certainly have no problem with "HELLO!" But in my leck of the woods, otherwise fluent speakers of Mandarin cannot seem to distinguish L from N. So the city in which I live is interchangeably called "Nanchong" or "Lanchong." Not even l/native N/Lanchongers can make up their minds on the issue. H and F are another trouble spot. My beard is either a fuzi or a huzi, depending on how rustic the barber is. And the Mandarin word for mediocre, mama huhu, already perhaps the best word in any language, is unquestionably improved by the Sichuanese pronunciation: mama fufu.
"Loon! Loon!" said my supervisor with mounting exasperation. Then, finally: "Noon!"
So my supervisor was proposing a karaoke date for tomorrow noon. I thought again of the conditions necessary for me to risk singing in public, and certainly stone sober at high noon with my supervisor in a simultaneously glitzy and dumpy karaoke room did not meet my crooning criteria. I nodded, nodded, nodded, and before I could weasel my way out of the appointment, found myself agreeing to meet her the next day at loon. Noon!
I've watched the first half of The Joy Luck Club exactly six times by now. I didn't have time to screen the movie before I showed it to my first batch of kids, just fired up the DVD player and let it fly, trusting that the R rating was on account of adult language and similarly adult themes, not full-frontal nudity or graphic sex scenes or realistic depictions of human dismemberment. A high school history teacher of mine used to quote a phrase, one that he seemed to believe he'd coined himself: when you ASSUME, you make an ass out of U and ME. ASS, U, ME. Assume. I'm not sure why he directed this at us, or at me in particular. Perhaps I assumed more than your average high school freshman. But this time I assumed correctly, making an ASS out of neither U nor ME. The Joy Luck Club wasn't raunchy at all. I was relieved: a wholesome family film about Chinese mothers and their daughters, Rated M for Mahjongg. But what I hadn't considered beforehand was precisely the one thing that should've been foremost in my mind in the first place: namely, whether the film contained any questionable, er, um, content.
So about fifteen minutes in, just as I was beginning to doodle flying dinosaurs in the margins of my notebook, I heard something that jolted me bolt upright in my seat and sent my blood pressure shooting up into the red, way up into the Limbaugh Zone.
"That's when I remembered what we could never talk about," said the narrator. "My mother had once told me this strange story about what happened to her in China."
A crowd of displaced Chinese men and women appeared on screen, hobbling forlornly up a gravel road. Burning buildings in the background. Screaming children. Jesus. I felt like screaming, myself. Instead, I sat perfectly still and sweated all over my flying dinosaurs and wondered whether Spherion Temp Services would take me back. Stupid, Mr. Panda. Really stupid. Now you've done it. Now you've made an ass out of U, ME, and - well, just U and ME, it looks like. But U'll be lucky if U and ME even have an ASS left after THEY are done with U. I rose slightly from my chair. I would walk right across the room and skip the movie ahead ten minutes. That's what I would do. A problem with the DVD, I would chuckle. But that was too obvious. So I stalled there for a moment, halfway in my seat and halfway out of it. A Chinese mother left her twin babies on the side of the road. They lay there sleeping. And then the flashback evaporated. We were back in 1993, accompanying the old ladies to a church picnic. There had been no mention of - well, anything, really. And the babies, as it turned out, were still alive. And Mr. Panda, he was still alive, too - at least until the next flashback.
But I lucked out. And my students, to my surprise, enjoyed the movie. Or the first half of it, anyway. At the end of class, one of my students approached the computer wielding a USB stick.
"I want to copy movie," she said. She set to work. Paternally, I stepped forward to help, but this girl knew what she was doing. "Yes, I think this movie is very great. It address very deep, very serious topic. So I like it very much."
Mr. Panda, I thought to myself, you are on a roll. Narrowly averting international incidents day in and day out, yet still finding time to expose young Chinese college kids to the wonderful R-Rated world of human misery. Yes, the semester had been an unexpected success. In the beginning, my students didn't seem to understand a word I was saying. Stand up, I'd tell them, and everyone remained finger-trapped to their desks. But by the end, they could catch the asides that I often mumble to myself when nervous in front of 47 people. My students were wary at first, reluctant to trust the sermons I belted out from the pulpit about this schizophrenic and indefinably abstract entity we call America. But the kids warmed up to me after a while. They learned at least a handful of things that they won't forget anytime soon, I hope. Perhaps I blew no minds in the process, but I'd like to think that I inflated a few of them ever so slightly. And in retrospect, though I hadn't planned it, the semester seemed to possess a kind of internal symmetry: I opened with Lost in Translation and closed with The Joy Luck Club. Americans in Asia, Asians in America. The semester began with a text message from my supervisor - The class is start tomorrow! - and it ends on a similarly hectic lote - final exam, Saturday, loon!
There remains much to be frustrated with and much to improve upon. I walked into class this morning and asked the kids how they were doing.
"Nothing!" came the unanimous reply.
"Oh, no," I said, scrunching up my forehead like a surgeon who has just inadvertently killed his patient. "No, no. You are not nothing, my dears! You are something!"
And then there was the lecture I gave a couple weeks ago: "What Is An American?" Over the course of ninety minutes, I stripped (or tried to strip) away those pesky preconceptions my students have absorbed from years of gossip and Gossip Girls alike; that Americans are blonde, blue-eyed, hairy, rich, strong, tall, creative, grotesquely obese ... "What is an American?" I asked, wrapping things up. "An American is a human who lives in America." Some confused grunts, a laugh or two. I opened the floor for questions and a hand shot up in the far back of the room. A sophomore stood up and shifted nervously from foot to foot.
"But, Mr. Panda," she said, "how can Barack Obama be President of America if he is not American?"
This poor girl was no Birther. The Obama birth certificate controversy (not to mention the recent Tag Team imbroglio) hasn't quite made it out of the Bible Belt, and I doubt it will ever reach the Bamboo Belt. No, this girl was fundamentally puzzled as to how a black African could be President of the United States.
At the end of a long semester, and despite my best efforts, it remains inconceivable to many of my students that an American can be Dikembe Mutombo or Francis Fukuyama, Mr. Panda or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and that all those variously colored individuals are more or less equally American.
Perhaps cultural pluralism is an idea my students can entertain in principle, but it seems more fancy than fact to them. Sure, there exist in the world such wonders as Siamese twins, and four-leaf clovers, and black swans, and Chinese women who smoke cigarettes - but these are anomalies and not the norm. And in a country like China, the norm is the norm. The Chinese are Chinese, and Americans should be American. Like Mr. Panda. Or maybe a little more handsome than Mr. Panda. And would it hurt if he shaved every once in a while?